The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Boca Chica, Panamá, Friday, 18 January 2008

Entering any new country means encountering not just the people and the geography and the weather and the economy, etc. First you have to engage the bureaucracy. Over six years of cruising and entering or leaving diverse countries in a sailboat has proven to me only how generally useless, inappropriate and expensive most of the national clearance formalities in fact are. I’m not one of your Reaganite-Bushite neo-conservatives that look you straight in the eye and state loudly that all government is bad (this, of course, before they throw mountains of money on corporate welfare programmes like a “Six-Hundred Ship Navy” or “Star Wars Missile Defence” systems, the invasion of little countries in faraway places or huge tax cuts for the already obscenely rich, or even, as at present the government suddenly decides they had better take some centralised action to ward off an impending economic crash).

No, I accept that a modern industrial society requires a balanced and sensible government bureaucracy. The question is: qui bono? To whose benefit? The most critical judgement of all these bureaucratic entry measures is that, by and large, they are easily circumvented. Take a look at how many illegal immigrants enter the U.S.A. each year despite a huge organisational effort to stop them. Another case in point: has drug trafficking declined despite the huge government efforts to stem it? Take a look at how easy it is to evade and avoid income taxes. QED.

No doubt the entry procedures have or had some justification in the eyes of whoever created them, whichever government, whichever civil service department, whichever important person introduced them. But, for the most part they are simply an ineffective, expensive nuisance. Mostly at present in Panamá, the visa requirements are reflecting on the one hand a national debate about how many gringos should be allowed to settle in the country, driving up the real estate prices, etc. One faction is all for attracting as many investors as possible while others are touchy about the whole issue. The second issue is about illegals coming into relatively prosperous Panama from relatively poor Columbia, Costa Rica, or the Caribbean island-republics. They have even been getting illegals arriving from Africa, one time when I was at Migración in David, I saw a line of young African men handcuffed together as they were herded into the Migración office in David. I remember reading an article in The Economist a decade ago saying that migration flows would be one of the major issues in the years ahead because of differing rates of economic development, wars and conflagrations in various regions around the world, etc., etc. We have run into the issue in every country we have visited including Canada, the USA, Germany, Britain, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela and now Panama.

Links to maps of the Western Panama area:,-82.430677&sspn=0.010019,0.014462&ie=UTF8&ll=8.320212,-82.276611&spn=0.641368,0.925598&t=h&z=10&om=0

Anyway, the regulations here are complicated and mildly incomprehensible. They involve several different government departments (immigration, customs, health, tourism, etc.) But at least they can be easily circumvented. You could be in Panamanian waters for weeks and months, depart again and never actually check into the country. You might even visit a national park in the islands or be boarded by the Panamanian Navy as part of their (American financed but, according to locals, largely ineffective) search for narco-traffickers. These government representatives will not insist you go through the entry formalities. But if only one crewman wants to fly out of the country, the whole boat and the complete crew will have to start the Check-in Cha-cha.

That’s was our situation. Kathleen flew out of Panama City at the end of November. The nearest check-in port is David, about two hours away by way of terrible back-country roads. You can hitch-hike the hour out to the Pan-America Highway from little Boca Chica and then catch a bus into David, the country’s second or third largest town and the capital of the Province of Chiriqui. Or you can hire a local taxi (a “camioneta”, i.e., a double passenger cab with an open cargo box at the back) for $60 or $70 to ferry you around for the day. This is what we did one Friday together with a couple, Jorgen & Judy, of S/V Anna III out of Copenhagen.

The Cha-Cha includes visits to a bank (to purchase a stamp that will be glued and over-stamped into your passport) Migración,, Capitania de Puerto, Traffico Maritimo, Aduana (Immigration, Port Capitain, Maritime Traffic and Customs) and then back to Migración. Another vessel, S/V Plan B, out of Hawaii, went through this procedure in order to disembark a crewman flying out of Panama City and had to pay for all the civil servants to come out to Boca Chica to inspect his boat. This time we had Mavis, Plan B’s delightful (and native Spanish-speaking) lady, with us. She shepherded us through the whole works and even convinced them at Migración that they needn’t really need to travel all the way to Boca Chica for a boat inspection. It does not bear considering how awful this whole process would have been without Mavis! Of course, they could have insisted that we bring the boat upriver to Pedregal, near David, for all of this. But we had convinced them that we could not navigate the narrow channel or get under the power lines at Boca Chica.

After a day in town including a visit to a supermarket and the internet (there is no real access out here in Boca Chica so you know how remote it is), we had paid the following (but see also below):

$70 – Vessel cruising permit for 3 months
$20 – Customs
$20 – Immigration
$10 – Stamp
$25 – Kathleen’s disembarkation permission
$24 - $12 each for the taxi

and $100 for groceries. The hour on the internet cost 50 cents. Can’t beat that, at least!

Migración waives the boat inspection, everybody gets to fill up papers and the whole thing is basically a lot of paper-shuffling. We have been in active contact with five civil servants who, I suppose, make a living doing this. The officials are nice and even jolly. The Immigration guy, Efraim seems totally overwhelmed by the numbers of people he has to deal with. But he remains relatively cheerful. Nobody gets up-tight. It is of course mildly annoying to realise that, without a crewman departing Panama, we could have sailed around Panamanian waters for months without any problem. I wonder now if Kathleen could simply have shown up at Migración and told them she had been dropped off at Boca Chica by a yacht coming from the U.S.A. and it had continued on to French Polynesia while she flew back home. While she was away, I would simply have sailed around Panama without ever checking in. When she arrived back, she would simply enter the country as a tourist, re-join the boat and off we could have sailed. Some countries issue and demand exit-Zarpes, but many countries do not. Canada, for example. Why bother. All the exit-Zarpe does is say that you were in good standing at the last port, i.e., had left only after paying all your bills, I suppose. The Canadian government seems to take the quite reasonable attitude that the government has no business in the commercial activities of the port.

P.S. Tuesday, 27 November 2007

We all four of us went back to David yesterday, had four passport photos taken ($3), stood around for several hours in the crowded Migración office, received a Permiso de Marino ($10) valid for 30 days at a time (renewal next on Christmas Eve), and came home again. Total costs now:

$70 – Vessel cruising permit for 3 months
$20 – Customs (cash/no receipt)
$20 – Immigration (cash/no receipt)
$10 – Stamp (purchased at a bank for sticking in your passport)
$ 6 - Photos
$10 – Permiso de Marino (cash/with receipt)
$25 – Kathleen’s disembarkation permission (Cash/ with receipt)
$181 – for two persons
$24 - $12 each for the taxi on Friday
$20 – Travel costs (bus, taxi, etc.) on Monday
$44 – Sub-total
$225 – Grand total

While we were away for the day in David, some sort of inspector in fact showed up at Boca Chica, had himself ferried out to take a look at our various boats (though the cruiser who took him out there refused to let him board any yacht unless the captain was present). So I guess we had an inspection after all. He said Vilisar should get a Panamanian courtesy flag.

The good news is that the anchorage here in Boca Chica is beautiful and tranquil and safe. Kathy has departed for Baltimore and Germany until end-February and I am trying to get motivated to start the little jobs that always need doing on the boat.